By Frank J. Barbiere, Brent Schoonover, and Nick Filardi
Here’s an idea so overused, it practically has holes worn through it. That’s not necessarily a dismissal mind, plenty of great comics are based on overused ideas. After all, the whole reason ideas become overused in the first place is that they’re compelling and interesting, and that’s certainly the case with the core idea of Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. In case the cover wasn’t obvious enough, Howling Commandos is a unit of monsters put together by S.H.I.E.L.D. to deal with weird and supernatural threats. Both DC and Marvel have done this premise previously, DC with about a half-dozen versions of the Creature Commandos and Marvel with Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos in 2005. Some of these monsters come from Marvel’s ‘70s horror comics, in particular the Man-Thing and Manphibian, though Vampire by Night is a direct reference to the Marvel horror comic Werewolf By Night that also gave us Moon Knight. The other monsters are a weird assortment of misfits and mavericks including Teen Abomination from the terrible Superior Iron Man comic, Orrgo of the Mole People, Hit-Monkey of the Deadpool zone of interest, and zombie Jasper Sitwell. The team is led by a sentient robot version of Dum Dum Dugan and Warwolf, a hold over from the 2005 Howling Commandos comic. So how is the comic itself given all the history it’s drawing on? Okay…really okay.
Honestly, it’s kind of impressive how unimpressive Howling Commandos is. There’s not much plot to the comic outside of what was summarized above; we’re basically just peaking in on one of the commando’s missions and seeing how they operate. That’s actually one of the places Howling Commandos really falls down, probably the primary place; it’s structurally confused. There seem to be two feuding motives that inform the comic and the tension between them renders the proceedings undeniably broken in a bad way. A story with this kind of premise has to exist in one of two forms: either we’re reading this for the incredibly goofy spectacle of seeing classical ghouls, goblins, and sundry other monsters going on espionage and tactical military missions, or we’re looking to see how a well oiled tactical unit integrates vampires and werewolves into its strategy. Howling Commandos is caught trying to accomplish both goals while achieving neither.
Firstly the monsters on hand aren’t crazy and monstrous enough to be fun all on their own. Half the team is pretty fun like Man-Thing and Manphibian, but it seems like the comic is leaning very heavily on Hit-Monkey to hold up the slake on the zaniness side of things and that’s just not enough. Additionally, forcing everyone into S.H.I.E.L.D. jumpsuits is a pretty disappointing turn as a big part of what makes this idea fun is seeing things like a full on mummy stomping around a combat theater. None of this would be a problem if the emphasis of the book was on seeing how these monsters might operate as an actual tactical unit, but that’s not the case at all. The various monsters just sort of roam around the scene murdering things at will without any kind of strategy and then are herded into holding cells at the end of the story. There’s just very little hook to the story and for a comic that stars a swamp monster, a zombie, and a killer monkey that shouldn’t be the case.
The artwork by Brent Schoonover is pretty solid overall. He has a nice blend of cartoony in with the realism that keeps the monsters looking monstrous while just camp enough to brush up against that zany tone the issue sometimes wants to affect. Nick Filardi is on color work and does a knockout job, especially with how many shots are in the ocean at sunset. The two complement each other’s work nicely and there are some very nice two-page spreads in the issue, but the art never manages to transcend the deeply ingrained structural flaws.
It’s hard to say if Howling Commandos of S.H.I.E.L.D. is just a decent comic crushed on the weight of prior executions of this idea or if it’s a legitimately poorly done book, but regardless it’s not recommended. Even if this is a case of the idea having worn thin with use it’s not like Howling Commandos would magically get better if it had been released 40 years ago, there’d just be fewer better things to compare it to. Maybe things will get better with subsequent issues, but for right now Howling Commandos just needs to buckle down and decide what it wants to be before they go barreling ahead into issue 2.